Since time immemorial, stories of a large creature with the head of a snake and the body of a fish lurking in the waters of the Zambezi River have been told. For the Tonga, this creature that has captured the imagination of people all over the world is nothing less than a Deity and to date its immensity in stature is cowered towards.
This river spirit is affectionately known as Nyami Nyami a colonial corruption of Nyama yamaninga ninga which means pieces of meat, it is believed that during times of famine Nyami Nyami would expose his belly and the Tonga people would cut pieces of meat of his belly.
Several stories have been told concerning the Nyami Nyami but what is unanimously illustrated in these stories is the enormous size of this spirit. It is believed that the creature is no less than three metres wide and noone knows his length.
To date the Tonga people are bitter, they blame the construction of the Kariba dam for removing them from their ancestral land and angering their river god, Nyami Nyami. It is believed that Nyami Nyami got separated from his wife as a result of the construction of the Kariba dam wall.
The Tonga people lived in the Gwemebe Valley along the Zambezi for centuries in peaceful seclusion before the European colonialists came and disrupted their way of life. The Tonga were protected by Nyami Nyami, their Mudzimu (ancestral spirit) who fed them from his own flesh in times of famine. During famines Nyami Nyami would expose his belly and the Tonga would cut meat of his belly. The people pledged their allegiance to him by performing rituals and ceremonial dances. Every time the people summoned him he always appeared.
Legend has it that Nyami Nyami and his wife stayed in the Zambezi River near Kariwa gorge, (Kariwa means trap and Kariba is a colonial corruption of Kariwa) where the present day Kariba dam wall is situated. One season when Nyami Nyami’s wife had gone downstream of the mighty Kariwa Gorge to other people of the Valley to answer their prayers and bless her people, the white men came to build a wall thus separating Nyami Nyami and his wife.
The Tonga’s way of life in the valley came to an end, they were told to leave their homes and move away from the valley to avoid the flood that the dam would cause. Reluctantly they allowed themselves to be resettled higher up the bank, but they believed Nyami Nyami would never allow the dam to be built and eventually, when the project failed, they would move back to their homes.
In 1957, when the dam was well on its way to completion, Nyami Nyami struck. The worst floods ever known on the Zambezi washed away much of the partly built dam and the heavy equipment, killing many of the workers.
Some of those killed were Italian dam builders whose bodies disappeared mysteriously, and after an extensive search failed to find them, Tonga elders were asked to assist as they knew the river better than anyone. The elders explained Nyami Nyami had caused the disaster and in order to appease his wrath a sacrifice should be made.
The Europeans mocked the Nyami Nyami story and did not take the Tonga elders seriously, but, in desperation, when relatives of the missing workers were due to arrive to claim the bodies of their loved ones, the search party agreed in the hope that the Tonga would know where the bodies were likely to have been washed to.
A white calf was slaughtered in accordance with tradition and floated on the river. The next morning the calf was gone and the workers’ bodies were in its place. The disappearance of the calf holds no mystery in the crocodile infested river, but the reappearance of the workers’ bodies three days after they had disappeared has never been satisfactorily explained.
According to Narcissus Nhemachena one of the construction workers present during construction of the dam wall, “It took five long years for the dam to be constructed because proper rituals had not been performed to ask for permission from Nyami Nyami to construct the dam. Cows were sacrificed and sack loads of money were thrown into the river to appease the Nyami Nyami. He caused some floods and loss of life, but at last he was kind enough to let the dam wall to be completed. It was the work of the Tonga elders and their spirit mediums to persuade the Nyami Nyami to allow the Zambezi to be tamed.”
Renowned British wildlife filmmaker with special interests in river and fresh water fish Jeremy Wade took a trip to the Zambezi on a fact finding mission to find out whether the Nyami Nyami really exists. In his findings; he noted that the Nyami Nyami could after all be a catfish after he heard tales of very large catfish that drag unlucky fisherman under the tumultuous waters of the Zambezi; it is said that some of the cat fish reach sizes of up to 15ft (4.5 meters) and weighing around 250lbs (113.25kg). He also noted the similarities between the catfish and the Nyami Nyami pendant.
There were 20 earthquakes between 1963-1983 that exceeded 5.0 on the Richter scale, 6 including the largest occurring in 1963, the year the lake filled. Today minor earth tremors are occasionally felt in and around Kariba – the Tonga believe that this is Nyami Nyami trying to see his wife but he is now cut off from her by the dam wall. When he can’t get through He turns around with such fury that the whole earth shakes. Tendai Mushangwe, Zimbabwe Tourism Authority area manager for Kariba, believes Nyami Nyami to have caused a tremor as late as early 2012.
However Engineer Charles Chibvura of the Zambezi River Authority differs from the mythical tale and provides a scientific explanation with regards to the tremors attributed to the river god. “Where ever you build a large dam, you are introducing an additional weight on the earth’s surface and the pressure introduced causes the earth to readjust itself. Hence the reason for the tremors that date back to the 1960’s after the dam was constructed, lately we haven’t had any such phenomena.” said Engineer Chibvura.
The tremors are also believed to be as a result of the Zambezi valley being part of the southern end of the east Africa rift valley which is prone to seismic activity. The construction of the reservoir, with a total mass of approximately 180 billion metric tons, increased the valleys seismic activity, with earth tremors increasing substantially after the filling of the lake. The highest concentration of seismicity is around the dam wall.
The story of the Tonga and Nyami Nyami is aptly summarised by the commercialised Nyami Nyami stick that is sold at various points in Kariba. The Handle represents Nyami Nyami who the Tonga people believe is God. The Tree is a Mopane tree which is found in the Zambezi Valley, the spirals represent the waves on the Zambezi River, the fish is representative of the staple food of the Tonga people, who prior to the building of Kariba Dam, fished daily on the Zambezi River. The Figures represent people on the Zambezi River banks during their ceremonial dances. The Wooden Rings represent the bangles worn by the Tonga woman as a decoration during ceremonial dances. The sign of the hand represents the holding of the “Magical Ball” used by the Tonga fortune tellers to guard against evil spirits. The Bubble Pipe is normally a long pipe made from a calabash and is used by the Tonga people for smoking marijuana.
Tonga Chief Sampakaruma claims to have seen Nyami Nyami on two occasions many years ago, but the river spirit has been in hiding since the white men arrived in the country. Whether the Nyami Nyami indeed exists or is merely myth remains a mystery.
From : Tateguru